Asplundh Tree Expert Co. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Asplundh Tree Expert Co.

708 Blair Mill Road
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania 19090

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At Asplundh, our mission is to provide our customers with cost effective services in the safest, most professional manner possible.

History of Asplundh Tree Expert Co.

Asplundh Tree Expert Co. is the world's leading line clearance and tree-trimming company. While most of the company's business is in the United States and Canada, it also has operations in Australia, France, New Zealand, England, and Ireland. Asplundh's primary business, accounting for about 60 percent of its sales, is trimming trees for telephone and electric utility companies and municipalities. Its divisions and subsidiaries also keep railroad rights-of-way clear, inspect and maintain telephone poles and dock pilings, read meters, clean and repair street and traffic lights, install underground lines and cables, and sell automobiles. The third generation of Asplundhs manages the company and all board members are family members.

The Early Years: 1928-45

Griffith (Griff) Asplundh was seven years old when his Swedish immigrant father died in 1903. His brother Lester was two, his brother Carl an infant. "Asplund" in Swedish refers to a grove of aspen trees, so perhaps it is not surprising that, 25 years later, the boys decided to make trees the family business. They got their training working for their big brother Oswald E. (O. E.) who started a nursery and tree-trimming company to help support his widowed mother and his seven siblings. Griff, Lester, and Carl trimmed trees to pay for college, with Griff majoring in forestry at Penn State, Lester in electrical engineering at Swarthmore, and Carl in finance at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1928 they decided to combine their talents and go into business for themselves, setting up shop in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Not wanting to compete with O. E.'s residential business, the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. focused on business customers--the fast-growing telephone and electric companies whose overhead lines needed to be kept clear of tree branches. The first customers were Philadelphia Electric Co., Public Service Electric & Gas, Co., Jersey Central Power & Light Co., Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., and American Telephone and Telegraph.

Their decision proved a wise one, as the telephone and electric companies continued to expand, despite the Great Depression. In 1934, the company moved to larger quarters in Jenkintown, and in 1936, O. E. left his nursery business and joined his brothers, helping them move into new territory. While Griff oversaw the trimming and Carl kept the books, Lester concentrated on research and development to bring the latest technology to the company and its customers. Able to offer the first power saws (operated by two men) and hand-cranked aerial platforms, Asplundh attracted more customers. By the end of the decade, the company had employees working throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, in the Carolinas and Georgia, in the Midwest, and as far west as Texas and New Mexico. To keep in touch with their far-flung workforce, the company introduced The Asplundh TREE, a quarterly magazine, in 1940. Business slowed significantly during World War II as workers left to join the military and rationing made it difficult to buy fuel, tools, and supplies.

New Services, New Technology: 1946-59

The Asplundh brothers thought the "chemical brush killers" developed during the war might prove useful for clearing rights-of-way and, in conjunction with American Chemical and Paint Co., tested these new herbicides. Liking what they found, Asplundh developed special formulae and, in 1946, began offering brush control services for utility rights-of-way, the company's first step in diversification. To make it easier and faster to clear and dispose of brush, Lester invented the first wood chipper and the company began assembling these at its growing Equipment Division. The demand for electricity mushroomed to supply the housing developments and apartment complexes being built for veterans and their families. To meet that need, utility companies had to expand their rights-of-way networks in order to erect new transmission towers. This meant clearing and cutting lots of brush, bushes and trees. In 1956, the brothers created their first subsidiary, the Asplundh Brush Control Co., to handle the right-of-way clearing work.

Lester was elected president in January 1949, following Griff's death, but stepped down from that position in 1952 because of a health problem. Carl became president and Lester continued to use his engineering skills to expand Asplundh's capabilities. His next project dealt with the company's core business, tree trimming.

By the early 1950s, the technology of tree-trimming had progressed from ladders and ropes to a vehicle called a turret or ladder truck. A tree worker still climbed a ladder, but that was attached to the back of the truck, making it easier to reach branch ends. Then came the introduction of the hydraulic aerial lift, called a "Skyworker." Asplundh started leasing the lifts in 1953, but found their insulation poor. Lester used a new material called fiberglass in designing a stronger and better insulated lift which the company began producing in 1958 through its new manufacturing division. That same year the company established its Pole Maintenance Division for treating and reinforcing utility poles.

In 1954, Asplundh sent crews to help restore service in Mid-Atlantic states following Hurricanes Carol and Hazel. As a result of those experiences, the company produced a formalized storm emergency procedure for its crews and customers. Seven members of the second generation, sons of the founders, completed college and began training in the field and home office. The company began participating in a research project to study the safe use of herbicides along utility rights-of-way and initiated its supervisory training program for general foremen. Company operations spread throughout New England.

The early 1960s saw Asplundh continue to extend its operations--into Florida and the Pacific Northwest--and to expand its services as it offered underground utility construction. In 1967, the company pioneered commercial thermographic/infrared inspections to detect "hot spots"&mdash⁄ort circuits, overheating and equipment failures--in a power distribution system and prevent power outages. In 1968, Barr Asplundh, Griff's son, was elected president and all second generation family members working for the company became board members. That same year, the company established the Asplundh Utility Services Ltd. subsidiary for the start-up of its Canadian operations and formed Asplundh GMC, its own commercial truck dealership.

New Markets: 1970-89

The company continued to grow and diversify during the next two decades. Street lights seemed a logical place to use its lifts, and Asplundh began cleaning, inspecting, and repairing street lighting and traffic signals for utilities and municipalities. In 1975, the company opened its first One-Call Center in New Jersey. Initially called the Underground Location Communications Division, the center served as a link between excavators and utilities with underground lines. Before beginning to dig, a contractor could call the center and describe where the work was to be done. Personnel at the center would notify member utilities with facilities in the work area so they could mark where their underground cables and pipes were. Within 20 years the company had eight such centers around the country using computers and specialized software.

Also in 1975, the company established its Railroad Division, turning its vegetation sprays on the weeds, brush, and trees along railroad tracks. Asplundh began working on large railroads east of the Mississippi, using three spray trucks equipped with Hy-rail wheels which could run on both highway and railroad tracks. To meet the special needs of its new clients, Asplundh designed new equipment, including a high-production spray train car that could operate while attached to a train. In the early 1980s, the division began offering rights-of-way clearing as well as vegetation management, putting Hy-rail wheels on aerial lifts and chippers to trim and remove trees. Soon the equipment shop facility was designing and building specialized equipment including brush cutters that ran on a railroad track and had arms spanning the line, clearing an area 56 feet wide along the track. Both services proved popular and the division was soon working on railroads of all sizes, from coast to coast, from Canada to Mexico.

During the 1980s, Asplundh expanded into western Canada through several acquisitions; bought a Buick franchise which it combined with its GMC truck operations; began its first "overseas" line clearance operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands; expanded line clearance operations to serve Hawaii (thus working in all 50 states); created the Municipal Tree Division for trimming trees for cities and towns; and established Asplundh Canada, Inc. to serve Quebec and eastern Canada. The decade also saw the introduction of a self-propelled, portable backyard chipper developed in the company's Alabama region and the acquisition of Florida-based American Lighting & Signalization Inc.

One of the company's greatest strengths was evident following the disruption in telephone and electrical services caused along the East Coast by Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and in the Caribbean and North and South Carolina by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Asplundh could shift large numbers of employees (1,500 for Gloria and 1,600 for Hugo) to the damaged areas to repair lines and restore service, augmenting the crews of the local utility companies. These emergency storm services, providing quick mobilization of trained crews and specialized equipment, proved to be an important marketing tool for the company and led to the establishment of a weather center at Asplundh's headquarters which monitored every storm in the country. As president Chris Asplundh explained in a 1995 Forbes article, "Santa Ana winds in California, that's our problem. Nor'easter in Boston, that's our problem; ice storm in Minnesota, that's our problem."

In 1987 the first of 13 third-generation Asplundh family members completed the Family Management Development Program. An Asplundh must graduate from college, spend three years working outside the company, and then be recommended by three family members, including at least one board member, before being accepted for the eight-year training program. Once in the program, the young Asplundh works in the field as a crew foreman, general foreman, supervisor, and then manager, moving around the country with each promotion, before coming to work at headquarters. In 1989, members of the second generation began to retire.

More Services, Global Markets--1990 to the Present

Asplundh started the 90s with a buying spree. In 1990, it acquired New York-based B&J Maintenance Co., to increase its utility line construction activities in the Northeast; L. Fulcher Electric, a traffic signal contractor, which became a subsidiary of American Lighting & Signalization; and four small line clearance firms in France. The French companies retained their names and management and operated as partners of Asplundh's French subsidiary, Robert S.A., named for Chairman of the Board Robert Asplundh, who helped negotiate the business arrangements. Located in different regions of the country, the firms' primary client was the government-owned power company, Electricite de France.

Later that year, Asplundh formed a joint venture with a large electrical and engineering contractor in New Zealand. The new company, Electrix Asplundh, offered line clearance tree maintenance, right-of-way clearing, mowing, and spraying to municipal councils and electric supply authorities.

Training had long been a tradition at Asplundh, beginning with informal training schools for crews. The Supervisory Training Program for general foremen was initiated in 1953, and the Supervisory Skills Seminars started in 1986. As a regional manager stated in The Asplundh TREE, "Our people have become more professional. This is especially true of crew personnel. They used to be considered 'just tree trimmers.' Now they have Commercial Driver's Licenses, Pesticide Applicator's Licenses, better first aid training, arborist training...." In 1990, the company established Professional Line Clearance Training Crews who came in and provided two-weeks, hands-on training to crews working on utility properties. That training experience was in addition to the normal on-the-job training crews received.

Equipment development was another company tradition, and 1991 witnessed the unveiling of the manufacturing division's LRIII-55, an aerial lift with a reach of 55 feet, well beyond anything then available.

The year 1992 was busy as all Canadian operations came under the company's Asplundh Canada, Inc. subsidiary; the Asplundh Manufacturing Division was sold to Altec Industries, Inc.; Christopher Asplundh, the youngest member of the second generation took over as president; and some 3,000 workers from seven states helped clean up and restore service in Florida and Louisiana after Hurricane Andrew. During the year the company began a new service, reading meters on the property of Chattanooga Electric Power Board, and, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Electric Co., Asplundh promoted its Philly Foam, a low-volume foliage spraying system that made it easier for a sprayer to see what had been treated, thus reducing skips and misses. On the international scene, the company formed a wholly owned subsidiary in Australia and acquired Read & Co., a long-established firm in England. Asplundh financed the firm's restructuring to help it expand in England and Wales and offer services to the newly privatized electric utilities in England. Late in the year Asplundh bought Ginnifer Tree Care Service in the Republic of Ireland. A commercial/residential tree service company, Ginnifer broadened its services by clearing lines for Ireland's Electric Supply Board around Dublin.

Asplundh's 65th year of business began with the mobilizing of more than 1,300 crews to restore power all along the East Coast following the Blizzard of '93 in March. The company continued to expand. B&J Maintenance was renamed Asplundh Construction Corp. and began to move beyond its Northeast base and Asplundh bought the assets of five subsidiaries of Southeastern Public Service Company, one of its line clearance competitors. By 1995, the company's revenues had grown from $100 million in 1984 to $850 million. Four of its original five customers were still doing business with the company and some 20 utilities had been using Asplundh crews for 40 or more years.

In the last half of the decade, Asplundh turned several of its divisions into wholly owned subsidiaries. Underground Utility Locating, Inc. assumed the responsibilities of the One-Call Division; the relatively new meter reading operations became Utility Meter Services, Inc.; the renting and leasing of equipment and vehicles was placed under Compass Equipment Leasing, Inc.; and the division handling pole maintenance became Utility Pole Technologies, Inc.

According to Randall Lane in his Forbes article, much of the company's recent growth and service expansion has occurred to provide more opportunities for family members in the company. With 65 members in the fourth generation, and the eldest ones in college, the company may not be big enough to hold those who complete the family training program. The other potential problem raised by Lane was the issue of dividends. Most of the company's earnings have been put right back into the business, allowing it to operate with no long-term debt. But the growing number of family shareholders may want more than the book value of their shares paid by the company. Asked by Lane if he might take the company public, president Chris Asplundh replied, "Then we'd just have money. That isn't what this family is about." Instead, Asplundh appeared to be making the most of the outsourcing needs of deregulated public utilities and cost-conscious municipalities.

Principal Subsidiaries: Asplundh Canada Inc.; Robert S.A. (France); Electrix Asplundh Co. Ltd. (50%) (NZ); Asplundh Tree Expert (Australia) Pty. Ltd.; Read & Co. Utility Services Ltd. (England); Ginnifer Tree Care Services (Ireland); American Lighting and Signalization, Inc.; Asplundh Brush Control Co.; Asplundh Construction Corp.; Asplundh Motors Co.; Compass Equipment Leasing; L. Fulcher Electric; Underground Utility Locating, Inc.; Utility Meter Services, Inc.; Utility Pole Technologies, Inc.

Additional Details

Further Reference

The Asplundh Tree, 65th Anniversary Issue, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Willow Grove, PA, 1993.Lane, Randall, "Let Asplundh Do It," Forbes, October 16, 1995, p. 56."Whacking Weeds with Water," Railway Age, July 1994, p. 57.

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